Tantra Song: The uncanny resonance with 20th century art

Interviews, News Section, Reviews

January 15th, 2013


(Interview) Tantra Song: Abstract Tantric Painting from Rajasthan

The Paris Review Daily

“An Egoless Practice”: Tantric Art


April 3, 2012


It could be a cult classic: the debut edition of Siglio Press’s Tantra Song—one of the only books to survey the elusive tradition of abstract Tantric painting from Rajasthan, India—sold out in a swift six weeks. Rendered by hand on found pieces of paper and used primarily for meditation, the works depict deities as geometric, vividly hued shapes and mark a clear departure from Tantric art’s better-known figurative styles. They also resonate uncannily with lineages of twentieth-century art—from the Bauhaus and Russian Constructivism to Minimalism—as well as with much painting today. Rarely have the ancient and the modern come together so fluidly.

For nearly three decades, the renowned French poet Franck André Jamme has collected these visual communiqués, and it hasn’t been easy: in 1985 he survived a fatal bus accident while traveling to visit Hindu tantrikas in Jaipur. In Tantra Song, Jamme assembles some of the most pulsating works he’s acquired, while unpacking his experiential knowledge of Tantra’s cosmology.

Western views of Tantra tend toward hyperbole. (The New York Times recently published an article, “Yoga and Sex Scandals: No Surprise Here,” noting, “Early in the twentieth century, the founders of modern yoga worked hard to remove the Tantric stain.”) Jamme’s book serves as a corrective to this slant and sheds significant light on the deep historical roots—and fruits—of the practice. Siglio will release a second edition of the book on April 19. Jamme and I recently discussed these anonymously made paintings, the altered states they induce, and their timeless aesthetics.

It is possible to define Tantric practice?

Tantra is extremely difficult to explain. But it’s important to note that these small paintings come from Tantric Hinduism, beginning in the fifth or sixth century, and not Tantric Buddhism. For instance, the goddess deities are Shiva, Kali, Tara, and so on. After painting, one is to meditate with these to finally make the divinity appear. It’s an egoless practice. In Sanskrit tantra means “loom” or “weave,” but also “treatise.” The paintings date back to the handwritten Tantra treatises that have been copied over many generations, at least until the seventeenth century. At some point they evolved into this complex symbolic cosmology of signs.

Hindu Tantrism combines devotional elements with ones that may seem more mystical, such as mantras and mudras. It is really a libertarian branch of Hinduism, and often it is forbidden. So the reputation of Tantrism in India itself is not great, but in fact the families who practice this kind of meditation and make these paintings are very free. . . .


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